Loretto Chapel will make you believe in miracles…or at least consider them.
Located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Loretto Chapel itself is an interesting story. Back in 1850, long before the area would become a state in 1909, things were a bit–let’s say–rough around the edges. Predominately Spanish-speaking, due to both the Conquistadors and recent Mexican rule, the Catholic Church sent for the Sisters of Loretto to come west and establish a school for girls.
Getting to Albuquerque: No easy feat
Easier said than done. Six sisters set out from Kentucky to establish the school and a convent. Unfortunately, the Mother Superior died from cholera on the way, causing the rest of the group to seek alternative means of transport to Santa Fe. They were off-loaded from a steamer, “Kansas,” after the captain discovered she had died onboard. Another of them defected. Four of them finally arrived in Santa Fe in 1853.
The remaining sisters got to work and founded the Loretto Academy of Our Lady of Light. In 1873, they were ready to build a chapel for the school. The Territorial Bishop, Jean Batiste Lamy, was a fan of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and sent architects who could duplicate it in the wilds of New Mexico. Thus, Loretto Chapel became the first Gothic church west of the Mississippi.
The church without a staircase…
It was a beautiful church. Except for one thing: There was no way to get to the choir loft. (The story differs here, depending on if you believe the architect forgot it, or if it was meant for monks, who used ladders.) At any rate, the sisters asked architects and builders to find a way to reach the loft. But because the church was so small, they were always told that a regular staircase was impossible–it would overtake the interior.
The Sisters of Loretto were undeterred. They needed a staircase–and they felt an affiliation with St. Joseph, the original Master Carpenter. So, a novena was necessary. For eight days, they prayed to St. Joseph. Nothing. Then…on the ninth day, an elderly carpenter appeared.
The Sisters’ novena is answered
Here’s where legend kicks in. The carpenter knocked on the door and claimed he was there to build the staircase. Carrying nothing more than a hammer, saw, and T-square, he was hired on the spot. With these simple tools–plus a bucket of water to soak the wood in–he commenced to construct the staircase. Alone.
The unknown carpenter built a beautiful spiral staircase. Thirty-three stairs, with two 360-degree turns to the top. No nails, only wood pegs to hold it together. Elegant and perfect. Then the carpenter departed before he could be paid. Thinking she owed for the wood, the Mother Superior went to the lumber yard. But…she was told that no wood had been purchased.
Every spiral staircase that makes these 360-degree turns turns requires a center pole to support the weight of the stairs. This one has none. Zero. The entire weight is on the base. Since it was built, architects have visited and agreed that the structure should have collapsed when any additional weight was added. Yet for over 90 years, nuns, students, and interested by-passers went up and down. Wedding couples posed without incident. The stairs never crashed.
To add to the mystery, the wood that the carpenter used could not be identified. It wasn’t from local trees. In late December 1996, Forrest N. Easley, a Forest/Wood technologist, took a sliver of the staircase for analysis. While the wood seemed to be from the spruce family that grows above an elevation of 9,000 feet, there was no known specimen that exactly matched. Dr. Easley named the wood “Loretto Spruce” or Pinacae josefii Easeley.
So…is the Loretto Chapel staircase a miracle?
It’s an amazing story. The staircase rests against the the loft and the floor. Although it’s now closed off, those who have walked the stairs claim they feel a “vertical bounce” when they climb or descend. Experts are flummoxed; there is simply no way this structure should stand or bear the weight of a single person.
Loretto Chapel was used on a daily basis by the students and nuns of Loretto Academy until the school closed in 1968. Afterwards, it became a privately owned museum and wedding venue, while the rest of the Academy campus was demolished.
So…even among those of us who are skeptics, this is a mystery. Or is it a miracle? From St. Joseph?
If you go:
Loretto Chapel and Museum
207 Old Santa Fe Trail
Closed Christmas Day
The Chapel/Museum also has a lovely gift shop. One of the best of Santa Fe museums.
Check the website before you go; the daily schedule is posted: The chapel hosts more than 100 weddings a year and may be closed for these private events.
Bonus: The film “The Staircase” starring Barbara Hershey, was made about this miracle.